23.6.04

Matthias Grünewald's Crucifiction

Among his surviving works are four Crucifixions. The earliest, at Basel, shows five people gathered around the cross: three Marys, John and the armoured centurion, Longinus. The Marys are the Virgin, the Magdalene and either Mary wife of Cleophas or the mother of Zebedee. The John is the Evangelist, not the Baptist, who appears in the next Crucifixion, on the great alterpiece formerly at Isenheim, now in Colmar; here the Evangelist holds the swooning Virgin in his arms; at their feet the Magdalene kneels and holds her clasped hands up in lamentation; while the Baptist stands on the right, a book in one hand and the finger on the other raised in admonition, with a text behind which translates: He must increase, but I must decrease. In the third version, sometimes called the Little Crucifixion, now in Washington, the Virgin and the Evangelist stand either side of the cross, hands clasped, he looking up, she, shrouded, looking down; while the Magdalene kneels with her two hands raised but separated. In the last version, at Karlsruhe, simply called Crucifixion, there remain only two attendant figures, the Virgin and the Evangelist, hands clasped, either side, as before, she downcast, he looking up. The Virgin in each picture is the same Virgin; the Magdalene too (though none of the portraits of women is very detailed); while the Evangelist, a thin, tall, flaxen haired man with a tragic face, in the last seems younger and has grown a beard. So: a family group, which decreases, from five figures, to four, to three, to two. While the monstrous and monstrously tortured Christ increases towards the overwhelming physicality of the Kalsruhe version, swollen with mortality, gross with suffering, atrocity made flesh.

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